Our history has left us with a strong aversion to burning books. We associate it with dangerous fanatics, with authoritarian states and mass repression, or with angry, ignorant mobs. Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has written that book-burnings are “the heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.” English poet John Milton compared the destruction of books to the destruction of reason itself. Clearly, we do not believe that book-burnings are compatible with a free, thinking society. However, it could be argued that book-burnings in the modern world are not as dangerous as commonly believed, that they are in fact perfectly compatible with liberty, democracy, and reason.
To develop this argument, we must start by deciding how book-burnings harm people or society. A book is only paper and ink. Burning paper and ink should create no more harm than burning the logs paper comes from. Therefore, we can infer that the dangers of book-burning do not come from the burning of its physical matter, but the destruction of its contents. It is the objective knowledge and subjective world views contained in them which are lost to us when we burn a book. The loss of objective knowledge can have negative consequences on society. To give just one clear example, losing advanced medical knowledge might mean that it cannot be used to save future patients, resulting in lost lives.
However, the loss of subjective opinions and unique worldviews is equally, if not more, damaging. Historically, many efforts have been made to eliminate particular ways of seeing the world; to eliminate cultures and political or religious ideologies. The most famous example of this is probably the Holocaust, where the Nazi party in Germany tried to eradicate the Jewish population, while also targetting other minorities like the Romani. However, there are many other historical examples such as the Spanish conquest of the Americas, which led to cultural erasure and the imposition of Christianity. In order to destroy cultures and ideologies, it is useful to destroy evidence of their subjective experiences by destroying important cultural artefacts and written works. In this case, book-burning becomes a tool to eliminate cultures and ideologies somebody disagrees with. There are few things less compatible with democracy, liberty, and reason than that disturbing goal.
So far, it has been established that book-burning can be harmful because of the destruction of knowledge and subjective experience contained within books. It has also been established that this destruction is indeed harmful to society and incompatible with freedom. However, all the harmful effects listed above only occur if one crucial condition is fulfilled. Burning the book must destroy the information it contains. In the modern world, this is not usually the case. Much of our knowledge is stored not only in multiple copies of a book all over the world but also online. If there is no destruction of information, knowledge cannot be lost and worldviews cannot be eliminated merely by burning a book. There is therefore no harm done to society.
Finally, it’s important to consider what role book-burnings now play in countries with widespread internet access and liberal values. In the UK, a women’s shelter organised a book-burning of E.L James’ bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey in order to protest against its message that “domestic abuse is sexy”. Meanwhile, in the US, a pastor led a burning of popular YA series Harry Potter and Twilight due to their positive portrayals of witchcraft and vampirism respectively. A counter-protester referenced Fahrenheit 451 (a novel that is highly critical of book burning) before burning a copy of the Bible himself in apparent retaliation. What is the purpose of these activities? Surely the participants all know that destroying a few copies of the Bible, Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, and Twilight will not destroy the content they find objectionable. I would argue that the participants are not even trying to do so. Instead, they’re expressing their deep disapproval of the subject material in a public manner. Instead of censorship, this can be considered a type of freedom of expression.
Some might argue that this powerful expression of disapproval can still be socially damaging. For example, burning books with high cultural, political, or religious importance can highlight strong opposition to the ways of life of certain groups. This can result in increased social tensions and potentially conflict. An example of this would be the Qu’ran burnings which have taken place in Norway in 2019 and 2022. Clearly, they demonstrate religious intolerance towards a minority group. Furthermore, these burnings have often led to large counter-demonstrations, some of which have clashed with both the book-burners and police. As a result, it could be argued that burning books important to other cultural groups only leads to heightened division and social tensions. However, the same can be said for offensive language and heated political rhetoric, which can also deepen social divisions and sometimes spark conflict. It is an unfortunate fact that freedom of expression will sometimes be used to voice distasteful and divisive opinions. Few would say that this is sufficient reason to restrict it.
Book-burnings have a dark and sordid history. It will probably be decades before we lose that sense of instinctive horror they provoke in us, but we cannot let this blind us to the more nuanced role they’re increasingly playing in modern society. Sometimes a book-burning will still destroy knowledge or subjective experience. After all, not all books are online, and not all people have access to the internet. Sometimes book-burnings will even still be the heralds of the stake, just as heated political rhetoric or xenophobic rants can be heralds of the stake. Yet we cannot deny that technological changes in the past decades are transforming book-burnings from deadly censorship to passionate expressions of disapproval. For that reason, they are not only compatible with liberty and democracy, but are a natural feature of technologically advanced and free societies.